The Emerging World of Touchless Biosensors

Sensors Insights by Stephanie Probasco

Non-Contact Buzz

A new paradigm is emerging in the biosensing world and it's called "Touchless". This new contactless biosensor class recognizes human physiology remotely, without any physical contact to the human body. They measure everything from vital signs to blood sugar while its close cousin, "Pseudo-Touchless", uses a hybrid of classical technologies such as infrared, optical, and piezoelectric. Touchless and pseudo-touchless biosensors are meant to deliver ultimate convenience and performance, freeing users from the shackles of device-tending while still interfacing equipment with only minimal effort.

Legacy biosensors, i.e., wearables such as pulse oximeters, heart rate straps/watches, ECG machines, etc., are devices that rely on conventional contact-sensing methods. They languish in consumer frustration, sending innovators racing to find new approaches to delivering the superior convenience and performance standards demanded by the public.

With all the buzz about connectivity in the Internet of Things (IoT), rarely does it include interfacing between humans with these smart, connected devices. The standard interface – wearables – embeds legacy technology, enjoying little to no threat of substitution, until now. Touchless biosensing appears to be materializing as the next archetype to shift the landscapes of consumer expectations, health care delivery, and research.

Wearables' Built-In Problem

Succinctly put, today's wearable biosensors can't make up for functional inconvenience. Contact is a required function of these sensors, and ironically, the pain point of these technologies as well. Consumers are resoundingly declaring through their wallets that wearable devices are incompatible with their lifestyles. The demand to overcome inherent functional and performance limits of contact wearables technology is glaring.

Data integrity and the ease by which that data is acquired are among the top demands necessary for widespread biosensor adoption, but neither are easy feats to conquer within their functional limits. Without continual, uninterrupted contact, only intermittent data can be acquired, which impinges on the high level of performance the device was intended to provide.

Fitbit, JawBone, Apple Watch, etc., all of today's wearable tech requires some form of contact to the human body to track and monitor user physiology. However, more than half of U.S. consumers who have owned a modern activity tracker no longer use it. A third of U.S. consumers who have owned one stopped using the device within six months of receiving it.

Figure 1

The shortcomings of wearable tech and industry frustrations are well documented. "Designs are still clunky and basic functionality of most attempts remain unchanged," writes Rachel Arthur, Senior Editor at trend-forecasting service WGSN. "In short, what we've got is a series of 'me too' devices – items that match in both what they look like and do", she says, referring to the 2015 CES innovation showcases. "The issue comes down to the industry pushing out what it's easily possible to produce, rather than looking to creative types to explore human needs and desires," referencing her conversation with Tom Goodwin, SVP of strategy and innovation at Havas Media.

Goodwin explains, "We're seeing a lot of devices that look similar and perform similar functions. Wearables should be designed with consumer behavior in mind, catering to an unmet human need and utilizing a unique technology – but I haven't seen many examples of this at CES this year. It feels companies are hurriedly jumping into the space to steal a march on Apple."

No matter how cool new devices appear at market-launch, even early adopters can't muster the loyalty hoped for sustained use without the human-centric design aspect uniquely offered by touchless sensors. Wearables designers are left with scant options to overcome the functional limits of contact.

Yet, attractive iterations guard constricted market share as the industry ethos "to engage people over long periods of time" idles uncontested. Up till adoption rates slackened, contact wearable technologies transfixed consumer interest and acceptance, however they are but a diminutive foreshadow of the real potential of biosensing innovation: remote, touchless sensing.

Human-Centric Versus Function-Centric Design

Arguably, wearable devices are now at the heart of just about every discussion related to the IoT, and the full range of new capabilities pervasive connectivity can bring. Profoundly, the wearables industry is prone to increasing user engagement, which impugns an underpinning of the IoT – automation – by first requiring physical contact with the sensor.

IoT connectivity is meant to reduce or eliminate active human intervention to help make life easier, yet architectural emphasis is placed on automated interaction between devices rather than between humans and devices. Today, the utility of wearables and the tenets of the IoT expressly reveal the successive need for contact-free, automatic biosensing, if data has any hope of being useful to enhance our daily lives.

The Utility Of The Touchless Sensor – Bringing Ubiquity And Speed To Daily Life

Functionality, reliability, and convenience are the "three axes of innovation" necessary for widespread adoption of biosensensing wearables, according to Rockhealth, with these devices having "the potential to disrupt large healthcare markets". However, touchless (contactless) sensors may be the key to unlock the functional limits of biosensing wearables, and thus disrupt not just large healthcare markets, but also the multi-billion dollar wearable market, while transcending previously unrelated industries such as command and control systems, ambient environment, and transportation, etc.

The total biosensors market was valued at $11.39 Billion in 2013 and is expected to reach $22.68 Billion by 2020, at an estimated CAGR of 10.00% from 2014 to 2020. Sensor companies like Advanced TeleSensors (ATS) are betting its touchless biosensor will add to that figure as the scalable platform that defeats the marked challenges of bridging the data of the information age with the utility of the intelligence age. ATS is that bridge; that interface that unfurls automation between humans and smart equipment.

Markets have been priming for ATS contactless biosensing solution. Founded by scientists of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) in Pasadena, CA, the company's sensor detects electrical and mechanical signals of the body through clothing and other materials at a distance of 2 inches to 300 feet, depending on application, while overcoming the noise of motion. The contactless sensor essentially frees users from required engagement and attachment, establishing itself on a separate innovation trajectory with new pivot points of convenience, functionality, and reliability. Imagine not having to wear a device, yet passively winnowing reliable data pools that impart desired insight for actionable purposes. Lifestyle augmentation through automation.

Forward leaning companies are fusing heritage technologies like piezoelectric, optical, thermal, and luminometric to provide pseudo-contactless experiences for medical care environments, with the goal being to optimize care while emancipating both users and caregivers from machine-tending rituals. More dynamic, leading-edge innovators are fusing highly functional contactless ameliorations with heritage systems to offer new-use cases for biosensing capabilities beyond fitness tracking and telehealth markets, and crossing into automotive, elder care, baby wellness, and SIDS research, and copious unspecified applications.

The Big Winner Is Big Data

The expansion of contactless biosensing into new applications enable big data analytics purveyors to build sophisticated and more precise predictive models with new unsuppressed data pools. "Companies that understand the potential of big data and are on the leading edge of extracting and using its predictive value will be huge winners. Just as Wall Street investors value and reward 'brand equity', they will also begin to assess and value 'data equity' – that is, what's created when a company has access to unique data and is uniquely qualified to leverage this data", says Arnab Gupta, Founder and CEO of Opera Solutions.

Catapulting touchless biosensing is the wearables' paradox. Until predictive models can be built, qualifying what is "meaningful utility" on an individual basis will remain a moving target for wearable product designers, unless a game changing technology enters the field. Ostensibly, while wearable tech companies seek cursory device-centered remedies for pained user experiences, a few sensor companies are pioneering a brand new game and bringing their own ball into the emerging game of touchless biosensing.

About the Author
Stephanie Probasco is a consultant with Advanced TeleSensors, Inc., serving as the company's New Business Development Manager. She earned a BS degree in Business Administration with an emphasis in marketing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her career spans 10 years in the private sector working and consulting with various startups in broad industries such as health and fitness, fitness equipment manufacturing and distribution, industrial coatings, and technology.

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